Wednesday, October 17, 2007

London Film Festival Day 1 - EASTERN PROMISES

This is NOT a review of EASTERN PROMISES. That will follow soon from my colleague. Rather, this is a critical discussion of the movie aimed at those who have seen the film and want to discuss it. SPOILERS FOLLOW.

EASTERN PROMISES is a cheap name for a rather cheap film. That is the sad conclusion I came to, having talked through my disappointment with five other people who had just seen the film. I went in with great expectations on the back of the cast and credit list. David Cronenberg's HISTORY OF VIOLENCE was one of the best films of 2005, thanks largely to a revelatory performance by Viggo Mortensen. I was also impressed by Steven Knight’s depiction of the reality of London away from the Millennium Bridge in DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. Sadly, Knight and Cronenberg let themselves down badly here.

The movie opens with a 14 year old pregnant prostitute called Tatiana collapsing in a pharmacy. Naomi Watt's nurse, Anna, helps deliver her baby and calls the time of her death. She gives the girl's diary to her Russian uncle to translate, hoping to find a next of kin to stop the baby being fostered. Uncle Stepan refuses to translate the diary because of its references to drugs, rape and prostitution, so Anna goes to a restaurant whose card is in its pages. At the restaurant an old man called Semyon claims no knowledge of the girl until Anna reveals she has a diary. He then offers to translate it. Anna meets Semyon's son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Kirill's henchman, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). She discovers that Semyon raped Tatiana and that he is now trying to eliminate Stepan and the child. She also strikes up an unlikely friendship with Nikolai. Meanwhile, Kirill has assassinated a man who accused him of being gay, with violent consequences for Nikolai. The set-up is compelling. Is Nikolai playing Kirill and Semyon off against each other, so as to assume leadership of the gang? And will he eliminate Stepan or help Anna and the child.

The plot of this movie is implausible and simplistic at every level. For instance, how is it that a prostitute who cannot even commit suicide because the windows of her brothel are barred can somehow turn up in a pharmacy at midnight? Of course, Steven Knight and David Cronenberg don't actually care about child prostitution or about the hows and whys of Tatiana’s predicament. Despite Sandra Hebron’s valiant attempt to introduce this movie as a liberal expose of the seamier side of London, Tatiana’s story serves merely as a mechanism to throw Anna and Nikolai together and get us into the world of cool gangsters and stylised violence.

An even more fundamental problem with the film is that Stephen Knight and David Cronenberg choose not to make Nikolai an interesting, conflicted character. The set up of the film captures the audience's imagination. Is Nikolai playing a long game, trying to take over the gang? Is he really a good guy? Will his conscience get the better of his ambition? Anna’s attraction to Nikolai is also more interesting because it becomes a transgressive relationship between a decent woman and a criminal. As soon as it is revealed that Nikolai is a "good guy" the movie falls apart. There is no conflict - no tension - and also no transgression in the relationship between Anna and Nikolai. They are merely two mutually attracted decent people who will not be able to have a relationship because he is working under-cover. At that point, all that is left is for David Cronenberg to give us a corny Mills-and-Boon love scene in which the two protagonists finally manage a chaste kiss. Puh-lease.

If the movie lacks interesting characters and a plausible plot, what remains? Well, this is Cronenberg so we get a lot of beautifully choreographed but largely gratuitous violence. In fact, despite the generally negative tone of this discussion, it is worth saying that in the first half of this movie, Cronenberg creates one of the most iconic movie Badasses of all time. Nikolai is absolutely brilliantly rock-hard. Take the scene where he disposes of a corpse, tie over one shoulder, cigarette in his mouth, defrosting the wallet with a hairdryer. Another absolutely iconic scene is the "Bath House" scene where a butt naked Nikolai despatches two knife-wielding assassins. This scene was so intense, so elegant and so instantly iconic that it raised applause from the packed Odeon Leicester Square audience. It also raised some laughs from those of us acknowledging our complicity in this pornographic violence and also the cartoon-like nature of the scene. David Cronenberg always lingers on the shot of the severed throat or the mutilated fingers for those few seconds too long. He’s enjoying himself in a way that makes the viewer feel uncomfortable. It’s like a school-yard dare to see who will blink first.

The movie also has some of the most instantly iconic homo-erotic scenes since Alan Bates wrestled Oliver Reed naked in Ken Russell's WOMEN IN LOVE. The naked Bath-house scene is an obvious example, but the tattooing of the stars above the heart is another, not to mention the scene between Kirill and Nikolai in the basement.

And this brings us to the heart of the film. EASTERN PROMISES is neither a thriller about child prostitution nor a transgressive romance nor a story about two do-gooders who fall in love. Rather, it is a story about a man who will kill to stop being out-ed. The whole engine of this story is that Kirill cannot bring himself to rape Tatiana because he is gay. So Semyon shows him how, knocking Tatiana up in the process. Kirill assassinates Soyka because Soyka is spreading rumours that Kirill is gay. Kirill has to force Nikolai to fuck a whore so he can get his rocks off as a voyeur. He’s clearly drinking to drown his frustrations. And Nikolai clearly uses the fact that Kirill is attracted to him to gain influence in the gang. Kirill’s dilemma is really at the heart of the story. It is, then, bizarre that Stephen Knight chooses not to focus on Kirill but on the childish love story between Nikolai and Anna in his script. It is also a weakness of the movie that Vincent Cassel, who is a great actor, has not managed to master a convincing and consistent Russian accent. By contrast, Viggo Mortensen gives a flawless performance in a flawless accent.

Ultimately, EASTERN PROMISES will be remembered for its stylish violence and its lead male performance. The story is thin and more banal than the PR campaign would have you believe. This is neither an expose of a grimy underworld, like DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, nor a compelling character study of a conflicted man, like HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. On the surface, it’s an hour of great set-up followed by an hour of a sappy love story between two banal do-gooders. It is really an equally banal and under-developed story about a man in the closet. Either way, cheap thrills aside, this movie is unworthy of its credit list.

EASTERN PROMISES played Toronto and London 2007 and is already on release in the S, Denmark, Russia, Iceland, Spain and Norway. It opens in Singapore, Australia and the UK later in October. It opens in Finland, France, Turkey, Belgium and the Netherlands in November and in Italy and Germany in December. It opens in Argentina on January 31st 2008.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more.

    It's nice to have a hard Russian baddie named after me, but apart from that, the film is lacking.

    It lacks the adult balls to take a serious look at child/forced prostitution in London (as Ghosts did for chinese cockle pickers) - or to seriously examine the character of Kirill - how he became that screwed up, and what having a double life as a homosexual is like for a Russian gangster.

    The film therefore descends into childish decapitation and violence - something we might expect from an adult comic like Sin City - but with an insulting "moralising" voice-over from the deceased child prostitute.

    The love story is soppy and unconvincing - the fact that Kirill ends up a good guy is hollywood and cowardly (especially given Cronenberg's track record with History of Violence) - and the idea that this was a serious examination into the underbelly of London, which the film was introduced as being, was laughable.

    Yes, violence is fun. Yes, Viggo was excellent as usual, and will surely become an instant gay icon. And sure, you *do* have to be careful picking your whores when you're punting in London. But we knew all that already. Strip all that out, and you don't have much of a movie left.



    ps. Have you been offered an underage girl? Do you suspect that a girl you have seen is being forced to work against her will?

    The Met Police has a special unit. You will be taken seriously, and your tip off will be anonymous. Report child prostitution and sex slavery - ring Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

    Yes, you can make a difference, please view this short film on sex trafficking: